Saturday Night Live: "Tina Fey/Ellie Goulding"
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Saturday Night Live: "Tina Fey/Ellie Goulding"

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Saturday Night Live

"Tina Fey/Ellie Goulding"

Season 36, Episode 20

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Fair or not, every time Tina Fey returns to SNL you think back to supposed "glory days" that may or may not have existed (her run as head writer on the show had a lot of great stuff and, of course, a lot of forgettable stuff). Add in the fact that after her departure, Fey was at the center of the sketch that arguably returned the show back to relevance, and lump onto that one of the biggest news stories of the last ten years just broke, and SNL had a lot of pressure to perform this week.

Especially given the show's recent mediocrity, I think it cleared that bar with an episode that had a handful of great sketches and only a couple stinkers. Although I really could have used some more Fey, who was only really the star of one sketch, it's harder to quibble with the show's casting choices when it's doing a decent job of being entertaining. Although, on a side-note, it's sad how little Jay Pharoah has gotten to do in the back half of this season, so much so that it was a jolt to see him as the "collection of choices" LT in the Pregnant in Heels sketch. I know the guy has mostly just been impressions for the year, but give him a chance!

Back to the show, which opened exactly as I figured -- with the typical static-subject-addresses -camera political sketch that's so dry you sometimes have to strain to hear the jokes. Fred Armisen spoke a gibberish approximating Arabic as a translator recited gags in a monotone voice, with subtitles displayed to kill any kind of energy we might be picking up. I'm not going to backseat write here (OK, maybe I am) but surely this is the time to deploy your Obama impression? The joke of the Bin Laden sketch (that he was giving his last will and testament, saying he was afraid of being buried at sea and that America would never catch him) was fine, but since what Armisen was doing was barely an impression, and the way we got this news was an Obama address, I feel there's an oversight to not featuring the president at all. I may be wrong. But the whole thing had me worried that that'd be the one sketch addressing Bin Laden (aside from Weekend Update) and be a general sign of SNL's recent policy of shying away from current events.

I was so happy to be proven wrong, and so surprisingly so, in the "Below the Waves" sketch that started out as a lame Little Mermaid parody that had me uneasy at just how lame it was (take that, 1989!). I really should have seen the twist coming but it was for the better that I didn't, because the minute Bin Laden's shroud-wrapped body floated down and the joke came together was the funniest minute of possibly the whole night. The rest of the sketch was really just a collection of jokes the writers room were obviously batting around -- turn Gitmo into a burial site/bait for terrorists! Those dudes shouting USA! USA! were just drunk idiots looking to justify their drunkenness! Conspiracy theories are annoying! -- but because of the sketch's originality they all flew. And props to six-months-pregnant Tina Fey for looking super-hot in a skimpy mermaid outfit that she changed into seconds after her Palin impression.

Oh, let's jump back and cover that -- whereas the Little Mermaid thing defied expectations, the return of Palin to the show (she's been missing for about a year) was something so prominent in everyone's minds, it couldn't help but flop, right? I'm not sure if the approach they took was the right one (Fey really just got three or four jokes in as part of a crowded field) but the sketch was definitely full of laughs, a Republican debate featuring Darrell Hammond returning to play Donald Trump and the triumphant re-appearance of Kenan Thompson as Jimmy McMillan, who really should start paying SNL for the extended exposure they're giving him. Fey's Palin is, at this point, so finely honed you don't even have to think about it, but when you haven't had her on the show for a year and Palin's done so much crazy shit, it's kind of hard to focus in on just a few jokes. I liked her lines, though: "good riddance to Katie Couric" being the best. Sudeikis is seemingly playing Mitt Romney as a man wrestling with hidden inadequacy, a choice I approve of, and Kristen Wiig is a fine Michelle Bachmann, but Palin, Hammond's non sequitur ranting as Trump, and McMillan's proposed underwater expedition to find Bin Laden were the highlights for me.

I'm all out of order here, but the debate sketch followed a funny monologue by Fey with fellow pregnant buddy Maya Rudolph that had me wincing as they broke into song (I wish they would stop doing that in the monologues!) but turned me back around seeing as the song was actually funny and featured Wiig and Kenan as in-utero accompaniment singing into umbilical cord microphones. Then you had "beneath the waves" and following that was a laugh riot video from The Lonely Island that used Michael Bolton to more hilarious effect than I could ever imagine for the guy. Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer are pros at putting these videos together at this point, but the transitions from the band's in-the-club song to Bolton's unabashed balladry about Jack Sparrow were just perfectly done. Especially him popping up in a pirate hat in the club, which had me laughing out loud a lot -- something SNL rarely provokes for me.

After that great run, things quieted down a bit for the second half of the show, with Seth Meyers doing just alright on Weekend Update (maybe his killer performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner last week took it out of him). The appearances by the devil and Qaddafi's friends who bad-mouth him in whispers were funny one-joke concepts that went on a bit too long. Stefon's appearance at the end was extremely welcome and Hader broke even faster than usual (even Meyers copied his hands-to-the-mouth thing at one point). "Jew Diamond Phillips" was the one that really slayed them, and rightly so. Tying the whole thing to mother's day made for some amusingly peculiar sex jokes from Stefon, too: "This woman raised me and changed my diapers," Meyers reminds him. "LUCKY LADY!"

The last batch of sketches was not up to the standard of the first batch, but there was enough goodwill that I forgave 'em. The birth video thing went on a little too long and had a fairly staid setup (you had six actors just watching TV and cracking jokes) but Hader and Rudolph's total abandon in their roles was pretty funny and the revelation of the gigantic pubic wig was great. The dorky daughter with the mom thing was a typically forgettable last-half-hour SNL skit; the return of the secondhand dresses ad with googly-eyed Kenan was unnecessary at best. The spoof of Pregnant in Heels was better and gave Fey a little more to do (and again, Pharoah had two lines and he did 'em great!). The shot at Bravo's shitty editing techniques (and their cutaways to startled-looking animals) was dead-on. And that final ad with Paul Brittan as a crazy Norman Bates type sending Hallmark cards to himself as his mom? That could have gone up after the cold open; probably the best fake ad they've done all year.

So, was Fey's return an unqualified success? Probably not. But given that the show sets itself a higher bar automatically by having her host the show, they did very well to clear it, in what was probably their best episode of the year.

Stray observations:

"As pallbearers, I designate my five oldest sons, and Dakota Fanning."

Tina and Maya tell their babies to stay away from the future's equivalent of Charlie Sheen. "Probably still gonna be Charlie Sheen."

The ultrasound machines they used were borrowed from Tom Cruise, of course.

Loved Bill Hader's Shep Smith. "My voice is both reassuring and deeeeply unsettling."

"It's just so great to be back on Fox News, the network that pays me and shows me the question ahead of time. I just hope the lamestream media won't twist my words by repeating them verbatim."

"I believe, with the help of this nation's voters, I can be the last black president."

"This mother's day, vote for me, the Black Lorax!"

"It's some sort of body, wrapped in a, what's that word again? Shrooooud!"

Bolton's best line was probably "This whole town's a bitch just waiting to get fucked!" But I liked him calling Jack Sparrow a "pauper of the sea."

The Devil gets NBC in hell. "Whatever happened to Outsourced! It was a laugh riot!" Excellent burn, guys.

"Is that her, or does she have a standard poodle in her lap?"

"Every morning, a thousand bees sting my tongue."

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